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Ecology of a Conference


For this post, I’ll be analyzing the 4Cs conference in terms of ecology and distributed cognition. My conference experience this year involved multiple settings, as the main conference was at the JW Marriott, the IWCA Collaborative was at the Hyatt Regency, and my hotel was the Hampton Inn at exit 103, about a twenty minute  drive each day (except on Friday when parking turned out to be a nightmare and I drove around the city for almost an hour).

The IWCA Collaborative at the Hyatt is a mini conference on the Wednesday of 4Cs. In addition to concurrent sessions, the collaborative also offered an opening breakfast, a luncheon, and a reception for attendees. Spaces of the conference included the large ballroom for meals, meeting rooms for sessions, a boardroom for a “quiet space,” a meeting room for space planning, and (attempted) gender-neutral bathrooms–in addition to all of the non-conference spaces surrounding the designated spaces: a food atrium downstairs, other meeting rooms being used by a STEM conference, hotel rooms, and the  offices for those working in the PNC Convention Center that is connected to the Hyatt.

4Cs at the JW Marriott was a much larger conference, encompassing a substantial portion of the hotel’s meeting spaces. Like the Collaborative, 4Cs used meeting rooms for concurrent sessions as well as the ballrooms for featured sessions and speakers. The ballrooms also served for reception spaces, registration, and book exhibits. The large halls offered spaces for digital and non-digital poster sessions and socializing. Additionally, non-designated conference spaces became part of the conference as attendees took advantage of them: Starbucks, the Velocity sports bar, and the lobby (additional spaces also served for those who stayed at the JW Marriott, such as the rooms and the fitness center).

Mapping the Distributed Cognition

Because there were so many spaces and activities, I’m going to narrow my discussion down to a simply one: attending a session. As Bateson explains, a behavior is a complete circuit that includes both the person and the environment, so I’ll begin with specific behaviors and analyze how the environment is a component of them.

By “attending” a session, I mean not only being present in the session but also all of the complexities that define someone as attendant to the events and dialogue occurring in the session. Attendees who are attendant to the sessions are engaged and gaining something as a result of being in attendance (learning something, questioning existing ideas, offering ideas that help shape the session for everyone). Session boundaries are drawn in several ways: arbitrarily by conference organizers according to the presentation titles and descriptions and physically by the walls and doors of the designated rooms for these spaces.

Conference Program: Conference attendees perceive the arbitrary boundaries through the physical (or digital) copy of the program and decide which sessions to attend based on titles and speakers. In this way, the conference program serves as what Norman labels a perceived affordance–the design of the program and descriptions allow attendees to perceive that they can attend a session. Disciplinary jargon and session titles follow cultural conventions, acting as primary indicators for the perceived affordance of attendance–that is, session attendees perceive the level to which they can be engaged in the session based on the jargon and organization of each session as described in the program. If presenters’ presentations do not match the attendees’ expectations, then their level of engagement or attendance could be reduced.

Physical Spaces: While seemingly straightforward with its traditional structure (again, cultural conventions) of chairs for attendees, chairs and tables for presenters, and technology for presenting, the session environment allows for a complex series of understanding and interaction.  Beyond the affordances of sitting, standing, and demonstrating offered by the chairs, floors, and technology in the room, the arrangement allows attendees to perceive social roles and adhere to social expectations (or not). Upon walking into a room, attendees are able to distinguish between presenters and other attendees based on their choice of seating. The facing of presenters’ seats to attendees’ seats affords conversation while distinguishing presenters as the leaders of the discussions. In this way, the structure of the room also creates perceived constraints (Norman) for attendees: the ability to engage only when allowed by presenters.

Technology: There are multiple technologies in each session room that afford the displaying and receiving of information that either engages or disengages both presenters and attendees. Laptops for both groups afford the offloading of information. For presenters, they can use their laptops to display information in such a way that they don’t forget their points or to illustrate concepts to the audience. Attendees can use their laptops (or other devices such as tablets or notepads) to take notes rather than trying to remember all of the points of the presentations and ideas they have during.
The full affordances of the technology are dependent on the users’ familiarity and comfort in using the devices. While they are likely (but not necessarily) familiar with their own devices, the technology of the room often creates constraints. For instances, if the room’s projector doesn’t connect with the presentation device, the presentation is constrained to verbal delivery. Additionally, lack of access to the Internet proved to be a constraint for many of the presenters whose presentations had been designed with Internet access in mind. Finally, the layout of the room in relation to the technology provided both affordances and constraints for full attendance. While the lights were dimmable to enable better viewing for attendees, the placement of the display screen next to the presenters’ table made it difficult for both the presenter and his or her copresenters to see the visual components.

Other People: The final component in the session environment is the people. The levels of experience and the simultaneous similarity and diversity of knowledge amongst the group affords discussions of concepts and ideas. Presenters afford attendees points for discussion that, hopefully, engage learning and growth for all of the people present. The attendees afford the presenters an opportunity for feedback and questions that challenge or expand upon their own ideas. Time constraints, however, limit presenters’ ability to fully explain their arguments, thereby also potentially limiting the discussion or attendees’ full attendance to the presentation.

Examining a conference session takes us beyond Gibson’s description of affordances to Bateson’s ecology of Mind and Norman’s perceived affordances. Perceiving that a chair affords sitting and that a presenters’ afford information doesn’t fully encompass the cognitive activities taking place. The full experience of a session is a complex integration of human and environmental factors only briefly described above. Looking at it in this way, it’s easier to understand Bateson’s point about examining a system by including all of its pathways. To separate, or cut off, one of the pathways included above would exclude a key piece of the system.


Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from